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Ethics: A Voice of Culture

Volume 1 Number 22 - July 2001

John Lennis & Janelle Hatherley



With the increasing interest in travel focusing on nature and culture, and the rising interest in ethnobotany, interpreters and educators need to consider the ethics involved with interpreting Indigenous culture.

The Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney has made a commitment to Aboriginal reconciliation with the appointment of John Lennis, the garden’s Indigenous Education Officer.  In this article John shares his perspective on the interpretation of Australian Indigenous culture and gives botanic garden interpreters and educators some food for thought on the ethics of non-Indigenous people interpreting Indigenous culture.  He talks about the appropriateness of this and also the ethical decisions that they need to make to ensure they are doing it appropriately.

Botanic Gardens Conservation International would be very interested to hear perspectives from other Indigenous peoples.  If you are willing to share your perspective on this subject please contact BGCI.


During the last few years there has been an increasing trend for interpretation and education programmes to focus on ethnobotany, and provide cultural activities rather than those based purely on recreation (Boyd and Ward 1993).  This has not only been instigated by botanic garden staff but also staff in national parks and private industry working in fields such as nature-based tourism and ecotourism; where increasing the environmental and cultural understanding of visitors through education and interpretation is a key element.

This focus on ethnobotany and Indigenous culture has occurred for many reasons, one being the increase in demand for this type of tourism and visitor experience from the general public, who are becoming increasingly environmentally and culturally aware (Morgans 1999).

In Australia a greater awareness of, and interest in, Aboriginal culture has contributed to an increase in visitation to traditional sites, particularly those in national parks and reserves (Upitis 1989).  Thousands of international visitors each year flock to see local landmarks that are also Aboriginal sacred sites such as Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kakadu (Boyd and Ward 1993).  The interpretation of these traditional and sacred sites can be a very sensitive issue among Aboriginal people, the tourism industry and the managers of these natural and cultural sites (Upitis 1989).  Therefore it is vital that interpreters and educators begin to realise the ethical decisions they must make regarding interpreting Indigenous cultures.

John Lennis Shares His Perspective

John Lennis from the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney has kindly agreed to be interviewed by Janelle Hatherly (the garden’s Manager of Community Education) on the subject of interpreting Indigenous culture.  While preparing this edition of Roots, BGCI has also tried to arrange for other perspectives to be presented but unfortunately this has not been possible to do.

JH - What is the importance of interpreting Indigenous culture?

JL - To me, as a Aboriginal person, it means getting the wider community to understand Aboriginal people, their history, and their lives…Over the last 200 years, Aboriginal history and culture has always been placed in the background and now is the time for it to come to the forefront.  It should be interpreted in a way that is meaningful, for everyone to understand it and come to terms with it, and understand Aboriginal people.  Until recently people have failed to understand Aboriginal people and the issues they face in the world today.

JH - What is the relationship between Indigenous culture and the environment?

JL - The relationship is actually one; the culture is part of the environment.  Aboriginal people lived, worked and played in the environment and the environment looked after them…Without the environment they couldn't have had a sustainable life…they were the sort of caretakers of the environment… in contrast a lot of societies today don't take any notice of their environment and that's why we've got such a mess with the environment.

JH - What do you see as the role of botanic gardens in protecting and interpreting Indigenous culture?

JL - Botanic gardens, not just here at The Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, but anywhere, have a role in interpreting the plants and the environment … and working with the Indigenous cultures to show how Indigenous people looked after the environment and cared for their environment, and gardens have a role in educating the wider community on environmental factors.  It's a great role and a challenge for organisations like botanic gardens to be able to do it in such a way that the layperson can understand the interpretation, enjoy it, and then take the ‘cause’ and look after it to ensure future generations have a better environment to live in.

JH - Are there issues with non-Indigenous interpreters/educators interpreting Indigenous culture?

JL - To me there are.  For example being an Aboriginal person and also a Catholic, I could not interpret the Christian belief of the Church of England or the Buddhist religion.  How could somebody who's not of that race or religion interpret something that they're not familiar with or have an understanding of?  If they can understand it, and come to terms with it, and know what it's about, then there's not a problem to me.  But it's very hard for non-Indigenous people to really understand the significant values of Aboriginal culture, and to understand the whole picture. They can get part of the picture but not the whole picture.

It's the same for example with the Buddhist faith, you can understand part of the faith but do you understand the whole Buddhist faith and how can you interpret the Buddhist faith if you're not a Buddhist?  How can you interpret Aboriginal culture if you're not an Aboriginal person?  That's the simple way of explaining it in my way to get people to understand why it's important for Aboriginal interpreters to interpret Aboriginal culture.  It’s all about inherited understanding really.

JH - Are there aspects of Indigenous culture that non-Indigenous people find hard to understand?

JL - Very much so, depending on how the culture is interpreted.  A lot of people can never understand the difference between mens' business and womens' business in today's society.  They don't actually reflect back on their own society where 20-30 years ago a man going into a labour ward wouldn't have been heard of – that was womens' business.  It's the same as women going into say a Masonic lodge or to a mens' only club, that's mens' business.  When they can understand that, then they do understand the difference in the roles of mens' business and womens' business.

That is the hardest thing to get people to understand in Aboriginal culture because the mens' roles were entirely different to womens' roles.  But in fact all societies had that in their past and even up until the late 1980s and 1990s there's still places Aboriginal women would not go to because it's mens' business.  They don't look at it that way when you talk about mens' issues or you say it's mens' business,  The same goes for womens' business.  I can't interpret the womens' perspective of Aboriginal culture because I'm a man and women wouldn't interpret mens' sites or mens' business because it's just not part of us.

JH - Is there information about Indigenous culture that should not be interpreted at all?

JL - Oh yes, some of the sites are very sacred because they are referring to, for example, womens' business and the spiritual side of things… I've seen people interpret them and they interpret them in the wrong way.  They are the sites the communities don't want interpreted; for example people go to these sites and they see the rock carvings with the figure of giant man, well these were in fact initiation sites for specific reasons.  There's quite a lot of them around that should not be interpreted.  It is the same for example as some of the different churches, they don't interpret everything, they still have their little secrets and certain things that happen behind closed doors.  It's the same with all cultures, they do have those very sacred sites or places where you’re not allowed to go there unless you're initiated into that race or sect or whatever.  This is the same with Aboriginal life and culture.

JH - What sort of ethical decisions does a non-Indigenous Interpreter need to make when interpreting Indigenous culture?

JL - If they do have to interpret Aboriginal culture, first of all they need to get the permission of the different relevant organisations.  It's very difficult, because a lot of interpreters or organisations don't go through the protocol of asking permission to interpret Aboriginal culture; they just go ahead and do it.  From my experience it leads to the wrong assumptions about things.  I've been on tours with a non Indigenous person interpreting rock art and their interpretation is so wrong.  When you say something, they say ‘…oh no no, that's the way it was told to me…’.  They don't stop and think of the damage they're doing by interpreting incorrectly.  If they interpret something the wrong way the damage that can be done to the wider community’s understanding is enormous.  It comes back to the question of who really has the right to interpret Indigenous culture but Indigenous people themselves?

JH - If a botanic garden is going to interpret traditional knowledge, what steps do they need to take?

JL - They need to talk to the local communities and go through the protocol of asking the community, not telling them, what the community wants interpreted.  As I mentioned before there are certain things that should not be interpreted and the community would tell them what should and shouldn’t be interpreted and how it should be done.  Botanic gardens need to listen to the community, they need to stop and listen …by asking the community they will get a long way.  If they go to the community and say '…we're going to do this, this and this…,' it's not empowering the community in having a say of what they would like to see.  Asking them what they would want to be shown on display, how it should be interpreted and listening to what the community say brings about a 'win win' situation for both the gardens and the community.  The community's passing on the messages that they want to have heard and the gardens are getting the knowledge and developing interpretive information that they're after.

JH - So it gives everybody a sense of ownership?

JL - Yes and it's empowering the community in their own culture about what parts of their culture they would like to be shown and interpreted.  This is vital for overall success.

JH - Some botanic gardens sell artefacts in their shops - what types of issues do the gardens need to consider to ensure that this is done ethically?

JL - By again talking to the community and asking the community to produce the artefacts.  Here in Sydney for example a lot of dot paintings, a special type of painting technique, are sold.  Dot painting doesn't belong to Sydney, it's central west, Northern Territory artwork.  By selling the local stuff, it's giving the local communities that ownership again, the right of their culture to be on display and not somebody else’s culture.  This is the hardest thing for people to understand, they see the dot painting and they think it belongs to the Aboriginal people generally but there's so many different parts of Aboriginal culture.

Aboriginal history and Aboriginal Australia is divided like Europe was in the 17th century with small kingdoms.  Each kingdom had their own way of doing things.  So did Aboriginal people here in Australia, so the culture in one area is different to that in another area; their beliefs are different.

It is coming to that understanding, that is why I say it's important to talk to the local communities; and listen to what local communities say because each one is different.  I couldn't interpret what happened in Melbourne because I don’t know what happened in Melbourne, it's an entirely different cultural experience, their beliefs are different to Sydney people and likewise the Northern Territory beliefs are different.

The rainbow serpent belongs to the north, where here in Sydney, Biame is our creative spirit, down Melbourne way, it's somebody else again.  So it's different throughout, and that's why it's so important to listen to the communities on how and what things they would like to interpret.

If you're selling artefacts from another area it gives the wrong message; you're giving another creative story or interpreting another lifestyle of a different area.  You're not recognising the local people; that's why I say that the communities are one of the main people to talk to.  You need to get a consensus from the community, talk to them, give them the ideas, and they will come back with the way they'd like to see things done.  This approach works.

RBG Sydney’s Commitment to Interpreting Indigenous Culture

Janelle Hatherly, Manager of Community Education at the gardens explains:
Three years ago the gardens made a commitment to Aboriginal reconciliation and, as part of this, were keen to interpret the Sydney, Mt Tomah and Mt Annan botanic gardens from an Indigenous perspective.  John was brought on board as the Indigenous Education Officer specifically to tell the story of the Cadigal people, the original indigenous inhabitants in the Sydney region.

JH - John, as the Indigenous Education Officer, what have your brought to the interpretation of the Indigenous heritage of this site?

JL - I think I've brought to the garden an understanding of the Cadigal people.  The Cadigal people of the Sydney region were desecrated.  I’ve worked to get everybody to understand that the Cadigal people are virtually a family group of a larger tribal group, and that the tribal groups were a little clan of groups together that formed the tribal groups who all had the same beliefs.  In addition I’ve worked to show the people of Sydney that Aboriginal people had a purpose and an existence that was far beyond the understanding of the English.  It was a very simple lifestyle but it was a lifestyle that they could enjoy without leaving their environment.  They worked in their environment for beneficial practices of their lifestyle. 

And it is not just about understanding the people from here but also understanding that the people from Mt Annan and Mt Tomah, the other two gardens, were entirely different clans groups and tribal groups; they weren't just one whole group that went from area to another, they each had different beliefs.  The uses of plants changed with the seasons and also the areas too.  Not all plants are used in exactly the same way.  They might grow exactly the same way, but the uses, because of their customs and their food taboos, are as different as skin. 

Before the Australian landscape was perceived as a desolate useless landscape, and Europeans loved to chop everything down and start scratching, putting in the European style garden, which didn't really work anyway.  Showing the diverse range of plants is not just helping the garden staff but also the wider community and visitors from overseas, to understand the beauty of the Australian landscape.  Through this they will understand how planting our native bush helps the environment, not just plants but animals, and eventually the humans that live in the environment are effected.

 In Australia, many Aboriginal communities across the country are fighting for land rights and cultural survival (Franke 1997).  The last two hundred years has seen their people forced, often violently, from their land, beaten or shot for resisting invasion, placed into missions, separated from their families, prohibited from using their Aboriginal languages and discouraged from traditional dances, songs and ceremonies (Ellwood 1988).

JH - Aboriginal reconciliation, how far along are we?

JL - In most of society today we are doing quite well.  I'd say that there's still quite a long way to go, but ever since the Corroboree 2000 bridge walk, where 150,000 Sydneysiders expressed their support for reconciliation by marching together over Sydney Harbour Bridge, it has shown me, and quite a few other Aboriginal people, that 75-80% of Australians want to walk and work hand in hand with Aboriginal people.

There is still quite a few people who don't understand what reconciliation is all about.  But it is progressing to where people are starting to understand the issues of Aboriginal people.  When they can understand the issues, they can understand what reconciliation is all about, and why it is so important to have it.  That way we can go forward in the new millennium together as one united Australia, and we don't have the divide which developed really because of a misunderstanding that happened 220 odd years ago.  That first misunderstanding is still carried on today, but now people are looking back and saying ‘…well, that did happen…’ and they are not denying their past.  That is what has always happened before and that's what Aboriginal people are saying ‘…don't deny the past and what's happened…If you can accept the past then we can accept the future’.  Before it's always been a denial of the atrocities that have happened, and if people can accept that, then they can look forward to a brighter and better future.

There are Ways and Means

In Australia, both non Indigenous and Indigenous people interpret Aboriginal culture.  The interpretation of cultural sites is far more complex than interpreting landscape, habitats or plants and animals - all of which is based on scientific information.  Cultural interpretation relates to people living within an environment and as such our perceptions and expectations affect the way that the site is interpreted and perceived.  As Anglo Saxon descendants and Europeans we are trained to be objective, empirical and scientific, Australian Aborigines have highly personal and spiritual connections with the land (Upitis 1989).

It is only now as land claims are being made and Indigenous people are controlling their traditional lands through legislative title, that appropriate interpretation of their culture is beginning to occur.

Interpreters need to be sensitive to the attitudes and expectations of Aboriginal people and visitors if they are going to be able to effectively interpret Aboriginal culture.  It is important that the interpretation takes a sensitive approach that is consultative and ‘for’ the community (Uzzell and Ballantyne 1998) and is done in close cooperation with those responsible for protecting and managing the cultural site.  Through this consultation, decisions need to be made as to whether the site should be interpreted, then consideration needs to be given to the cultural knowledge to be shared, the messages to be conveyed, the level of visitor access (Upitis 1989) and who should undertake the interpretation.  This then helps to ensure accurate and appropriate cultural interpretation.

It is vital that the information is correct.  Aboriginal people have a crucial role in the interpretive development of a site, the site’s management, tourism development and advertising.  The Aboriginal people control and release and transfer their cultural information and they play a critical role in the development of the image and definition of Aboriginal culture for non Indigenous people (Boyd and Ward 1993).


Boyd, W.E. and Ward, G.K. (1993) Aboriginal Heritage and Visitor Management in Hall, C.M. and McArthur, S. (eds) Heritage Management in New Zealand and Australia - Visitor Management, Interpretation and Marketing.  Oxford University Press, Auckland New Zealand.

Ellwood, W. (1988) 'Back from the Brink'.  New Internationalist No. 186 August 1988 pp4-6.
Franke, J. (1997) The NI Interview Robert Bropho.  New Internationalist No. 290 p31.

Morgans, D. (1999) Ecotourism – Fad or Future for Tourism?  Roots 18 a Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) Education Review pp18-21.  BGCI UK.

Upitis, A. (1989) Interpreting Cross Cultural sites in Uzzell, D. (ed) Heritage Interpretation Volume 1 the Natural and Built Environment.  Belhaven Press, London.

Uzzell, D. and Ballantyne, R. (1998) Heritage that Hurts: Interpretation in a Post-modern World in Uzzell, D. and Ballantyne, R. (eds) Contemporary Issues in Heritage and Environmental Interpretation.  The Stationary Office, London.


Con el creciente interés en los viajes centrados en la naturaleza y la cultura, y el aumento del interés por la etnobotánica, los intérpretes y educadores necesitan considerar la ética relacionada con la interpretación de la cultura Indígena.  El Real Jardín Botánico de Sydney ha establecido un compromiso de reconciliación aborigen con el acuerdo de John Lennis, el Secretario de Educación Indígena del Jardín.  En este artículo John comparte su perspectiva en la interpretación de la cultura indígena australiana y da a los intérpretes del Jardín Botánico y educadores algún sustento para considerar e interpretar, a partir de la ética de la gente no indígena, una cultura indígena.  Él habla de lo que es más apropiado y también de las decisiones éticas que ellos necesitan tomar para asegurarse de que lo están haciendo de una manera apropiada.

La BGCI estaría muy interesada en recibir perspectivas desde otras gentes indígenas.  Si quieres compartir tu perspectiva sobre este tema por favor contacta con Lucy Sutherland en BGCI por correo electrónico:

About this Article

BGCI greatly appreciates John Lennis taking time to share his perspective.  John is the Indigenous Education Officer at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney.  The interview was conducted by Janelle Hatherly, Manager of Community Education at the gardens.  Both John and Janelle can be contacted at Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, Mrs Macquarie’s Road, Sydney 2000 New South Wales Australia.  Tel: (61) 2 9231 8111  Fax: (61) 2 9251 4403  Email:

The interview questions and the article’s introduction, conclusion and summary were written by Lucy Sutherland BGCI’s Education Officer.